Books: North Face of Soho — 8. Star Encounters of the First Kind |
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North Face of Soho — 8. Star Encounters of the First Kind


That a million other people would see it too was a datum whose full impact was slow to sink in. After all, the paper was full of good writers. But I had the best subject. When Edward Crankshaw reviewed a book about Stalin, he had to spend the opening paragraph giving the readers a potted history of the Soviet Union. My readers already knew what I was talking about. By that stage, television was a household experience, the first frame of reference in everybody’s mind. So I could spend my whole time being as allusive as I liked. In the long term, this privilege was to make all the difference. Because TV took in everything, I could take in everything too. It was the ideal set-up for a cracker-barrel philosopher. The possibilities, however, were slow to dawn, and for the moment my Observer column felt like a holiday from Cinema, which was the job that counted. For one thing, the job was growing, like the spaceman’s hand in The Quatermass Experiment. I was still recording the two shows back to back in Manchester every second Wednesday, and preparing for them in London every week, but there was a new policy to supplement the regular shows with irregular specials, which would add up to a series all on their own: a string (not yet called ‘a strand’) of interviews with the movie stars. Some of the movie stars were quite big, but even the small ones were hard to lure up to Manchester. The first star was very small indeed, although in my own eyes he loomed larger than Betelgeuse. He was the veteran lyricist Johnny Mercer, the very man who wrote ‘The Summer Wind’ and ‘One For My Baby’, which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes. But to Cinema’s audience he was known only, if at all, as the author of ‘Moon River’, which everyone knew from the charming way Audrey Hepburn almost managed to sing it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mercer had prominence, but scarcely stardom.

Mercer’s relative obscurity was a lucky break for me, because there were few repercussions after I stuffed up the interview so badly that it couldn’t be transmitted. Knowing a lot about him, I spent far too much time proving to him that I knew it. An interviewer should certainly be well prepared, but only so that the answers won’t catch him flat-footed. I made the beginner’s classic mistake of including the answer in the question. This left my puzzled guest with little to say beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The interview was done on film in a specially rented room of the London hotel where Mercer was staying. When Mercer had gone back to his own room, no doubt wondering why he had bothered, Arthur sat down in the guest’s vacated chair and read me the news. ‘We can’t use this.’ I sat there on the verge of tears while he gave me a quiet but unforgettable lesson in the necessity of asking a plain question so as to make the guest look like the interesting one, and not the host.

Well aware that I had made an expensive mess of things, I took the news in, and it formed the basis of my modus operandi from then on. Though I have always choked on such standard questions as ‘How did you feel when ... ?’ and ‘What was it like to work with ... ?’, it is better to ask them, or something like them, than to load a question with the very information that it is designed to elicit. I tried to overcome my squeamishness about appearing ignorant to the instructed viewer. The instructed viewer is rarely watching. It’s the uninstructed viewer that you’re after. Another basic interviewing skill was even more elementary but harder to master: listening to the answer. If you ask someone ‘What did you do when you left school?’ and he answers ‘I murdered my mother and buried her under the patio,’ the next thing you say should not be ‘And then I suppose you went to university?’ Eventually I got better at that one, but luckily I got better straight away at not upstaging the client. The Mercer debacle, plus the subsequent tongue-lashing from my producer, threw a real scare into me. It seemed logical to conclude that I should try to learn from the humiliation. Much, much later, I learned to count this ability to recover from catastrophe as one of my most useful qualities. I could put it down to sensitivity, but it is more likely to depend on the opposite. I have seen some highly talented people put out of action by a failure. They take it for a just estimation of their abilities. I never questioned that I had a right to be there, even when the people who thought I hadn’t might seem to have a good case, handed to them by me. No matter what disasters had driven me out of it, I always returned to the centre of attention. The spotlight healed my wounds. I had a thin skin, but a brass neck.

An interview with Richard Burton went better: well enough, in fact, to reach the screen. Burton had a stiff movie to push and was therefore available. Even in those days, you could get the stellar names only when they were flogging a dog. Burton’s movie, called Hammersmith is Out, barked and chewed bones. I don’t think even he ever sat through it. I did, as part of my preparation. Something had gone wrong with every part of the movie. The action never started. On the other hand, it never ended. As a token that the plot was going nowhere, Burton spent the whole movie standing around. When he walked, it was so that he could stand around somewhere else. Nobody would give a toss. But he was still a star. When Granada proposed to Burton’s people that he should be interviewed in Manchester, they proposed Monte Carlo. London was the compromise, but at least we were in a studio. I can’t remember which one it was — they all look the same from inside — but I can remember exactly my first impression of Burton. In the press profiles he had always been called stocky, and as his career declined, the journalists took to calling him short. Later on I realized that journalistic estimates of physical stature are always relative to perceived status, but I was still at the stage of believing what I read, so it was a shock to find that Burton was quite tall. What made him look less so, especially on screen, was the size of his head. It was as big as a tea chest. You had to lean sideways to look past him. On the front of that vast expanse of cranium, the features were arranged like a caricature of Richard Burton. I was still getting used to the fact that the stars look so like themselves: it is the first, and sometimes the only, characteristic they have. Burton seemed quite tolerant of my beard. He would probably have been tolerant if I had been dressed as a Maori chieftain. Though upright, with his bulky shoulders squared, he was barely awake. He was sober that afternoon, but the previous day had taken its toll, along with the previous half century.

Fortune decreed, however, that he had his answers ready, whatever the question. I courted disaster only once, when I hesitated to join in with his estimation of Joseph Losey as some kind of genius. If Burton had been in, say, The Servant, this might have been a proposition that he could plausibly illustrate, but the Losey film he had been in was Boom, which I had once watched go by on the big screen like a stricken luxury liner limping home to port after its passengers all died in a mass outbreak of boredom. As a blacklisted Hollywood director who had gone into exile in Europe and made a string of literate films in conditions of great difficulty, Losey was much revered among British film people: to admire him was a mark of seriousness. But he was short of humour, as his occasional attempt at comedy proved, and his concomitant solemnity — general recognition of which would eventually deprive his back catalogue of its prestige — was perfectly apparent even at the time to anyone not blinded by his legend. My guardian angel stopped me from saying so, and Burton was free to burble on with detailed reminiscences about Losey which were all taken out in the editing, on the correct assumption that the audience wouldn’t have known what he was talking about. But I made sure that I dug out of him all the best stories about his more popular movies. Some of them, after all, were pretty good, especially The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which I thought masterly. He was pleased to hear that, although he would have been less pleased to hear that I thought Oskar Werner attained a naturalness on screen which Burton had never dreamed of. Happily I didn’t say that either. Most of the opinions came from the client: a desirable imbalance, because the viewers, on the basis of their own experience, can decide for themselves whether the interviewee is talking nonsense or not, and even if they decide he is, they still find him a lot more interesting than the interviewer. I even managed to look excited when discussing Hammersmith is Out, which is more than I can say for Burton. But although never more than half awake, he was also never less than intelligent and civilized. Discounting the occasional flash of his undying belief that his alliance with Elizabeth Taylor had raised him to new artistic heights unknown to the Stratford Memorial Playhouse or the Old Vic, Burton handled his end of the business pretty well, and I was almost as impressed by him as I was by his one-man entourage, a black heavyweight who drove the car and arranged the details. After the heavyweight loaded Burton into the back of the limousine so that he could finish waking up, I was glad to find that I had my producer’s favour. ‘We can use that.’

When I saw the trimmed version on screen, I could see that it was no triumph for either party. But it wasn’t bad. An interview with Robert Mitchum went better still, mainly because Mitchum was more interesting all round. Burton, to prove himself alert to the English language, had to quote Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas. Mitchum could quote himself. There are people you can’t take your ears off when they talk, even when they mumble. Mitchum was one of them. His mumble, however, was formidable. Operating through a spokesman in his retinue, he demanded to audition us over lunch at the Dorchester. Arthur and I were there early, and well dug in. Mitchum turned up on time to the minute but we couldn’t understand what he was saying. ‘I seem fine squaws rive earl.’ A trained simultaneous translator from Geneva would have told us that he had said, ‘I see my firing squad has arrived early.’

Theoretically Mitchum was on the wagon at the time, but he must have taken one look at my beard and changed his mind, because when the waiter asked him if he would like something to drink he made the waiter bend down and spent a long time whispering in his ear. The whispering was accompanied by illustrative movements of his hands, as if he were passing on arcane secrets in the art of flower arrangement. When the drink arrived it was about two feet tall, changed colour on the way up, and had foliage sprouting from the top, like a core sample from an Amazonian swamp. All it needed was a toucan perched on a branch. There was always the chance that this concoction had no alcohol in it, but it certainly had some kind of active ingredient, because after he had inhaled about half of it, Mitchum’s voice suddenly came into focus. It was still, however, pitched very low. It has always been a practice of the big male movie stars to pitch the voice low when off screen, so as to make the interlocutor lean forward. The angle of inclination is an index of prestige. For a movie star, being interviewed on television counts as being off screen, so the volume is duly screwed down, which duly increases the amplitude of the timbre. This can give a TV sound engineer unmanageable problems. I had seen an interview with Lee Marvin during which I had to lean my head against the TV set, which shook to the reverberation. Here was Mitchum doing the same thing in a restaurant. If he did the same thing in the studio, we were dead. Inspired by fear, I decided to play it deaf. Nowadays it would be no trick, but then I had to fake it. Mitchum took pity on a fellow actor and raised his volume into the range of the audible. Greatly daring, I offered not to ask him about his early stardom in the first-ever celebrity marijuana bust. ‘Go ahead.’ This answer cleared the air nicely, and the following conversation flowed without a hitch, except for his reluctance to expand on an anecdote after giving us its bare bones. Afterwards, Arthur told me this was a good sign: the client was saving his best stuff for the air.

He did, too. In studio he was tremendous. He liked it that I knew about the off-trail movies as well as the mainstream ones. Build My Gallows High was a favourite film noir of mine and I could have proved it by reciting the dialogue from memory, but I had learned my lesson and let him recite it instead. I was a big fan of Thunder Road, the low-budget thriller about the best moonshine-liquor driver in the mountains. (‘He sets a pace that only a madman can match.’) So was Mitchum: the project had been his idea, and he was instantly off and running about the difficulties of getting a pet idea financed and filmed within the prevailing system. His rare intelligence was in every sentence he spoke, and for a wonder he spoke every sentence clearly, although he was still no louder than a mole in hiding. But compared to Lee Marvin, Mitchum was Cicero. It went so well that we asked him if we could keep rolling long enough to turn the footage into two programmes instead of one. He agreed on the spot. It was as if he didn’t want to go home. I didn’t either. Finally the electricians pulled the plugs, Mitchum wandered off into the gathering dusk, and I waited with some confidence for Arthur’s accolade. ‘We can certainly use that.’ Arthur went off to catch the train to Manchester, where he would have three whole weeks to edit the first of the two programmes.

Early the next day he was on the phone to Cambridge to break the bad news. Mitchum’s people had double-crossed us and made their star available for the Parkinson programme two weeks from now. Parkinson’s BBC talk show was still building up at that stage but it was already the thing for a visiting star to do, and the studios were already working on the principle that to turn down the exposure just because of a previous promise would be a quixotic price to pay for a little thing like integrity. It was no use complaining to Mitchum himself, who probably had no idea of what was going on. The only answer was to edit the first of our programmes immediately and get it on the air before Parkinson. A ticket awaited me at Euston. I was direly enjoined not to have too big a breakfast on the Pullman and to be sure to write my introduction on the way, because we would have to tape it as soon as I got there.

Drinking nothing but orange juice and water, I wrote the script on the train, taped it successfully when I arrived, and sat in on quite a lot of the editing, which was a revelation. We were cutting film, not splicing tape, so it took two moviolas and a pot of glue to accomplish in an hour what an Avid machine would later do in five minutes. The revelation lay in what you could cut out and still keep the sense. Next morning I left them to it and went back to London on the early train to write my TV column, feeling like a fighter-bomber pilot flying multiple missions to the Falaise Gap in 1944. This was the life.

Or to put it another way, this was madness. Military analogies are always the tip-off that a writer is dramatizing himself, but there could be no doubt that I was outrunning my supply lines even as I stormed forward. An example of what madness looked like was provided by Burt Lancaster, who suddenly became available after our first Mitchum programme was successfully screened. We managed to get it on the air a few days before the Parkinson interview, which duly undercut the impact of our second programme that followed later. But on any objective assessment I could say truly that Mitchum did better with us than with Parkinson. Like all people with a feel for language, Mitchum was reluctant to say the same thing again in the same words, so he gave Parkinson a more circumlocutory set of responses. It wasn’t Parkinson’s fault. But I had a subjective assessment going along with the objective one, and I preferred to think that it was his fault. I was a bit chippy about Parky’s having jumped our claim. Nevertheless, we had got our first programme into the leading spot, and Lancaster’s people were sufficiently impressed with what they saw to think that we might do the same for their man. For them, it would be good advance publicity for a Michael Winner movie called Scorpio, then in the last stages of filming at Shepperton. The deal was that I would interview Lancaster at an exterior location, somewhere not far from the studio but far enough to ensure that it would be difficult to control the sound. Open-air interviews are hard for just that reason. Unless you are using two cameras at once, noise in the background makes the footage hard to edit, so that you are always going for another take on an interchange that might not have gone very well already, but will be certain to go worse when you shoot it again. Arthur told me it would be good practice, and anyway, this was our only chance to get Lancaster, even though his career was in the doldrums by then. After personally revolutionizing the Hollywood production system so that actors acquired real creative power for the first time, he had clung on too long to his status as the magnetic leading man. (Later on, when he allowed himself to be cast as the old timer, his career entered a second phase of glory, with movies like Local Hero and Atlantic City being built around his hulking but always gracefully moving presence, whose boundless vitality had at last mellowed towards the bearable: he became less of a ham as he lost vigour.) But if, at that stage, he was no longer what he was, he was still a huge name. We would have said yes if he had been in jail.

So down we went to the location, in an open field where there were tents for dressing rooms, tents for offices, and tents for two different grades of dining hall, one for the dogsbodies, and the other, a hundred yards further away, for the director and the star. One glance at the film’s prospectus told me that it was a tired old spy drama that would be released only into oblivion, like a blob of spit aimed at a hot stove. But I had no reason to despise Michael Winner and indeed I still don’t today. Death Wish might be a favourite movie among gun nuts but it is not without a measure of narrative drive, and at least Winner got his movies made, when so many other British directors were sitting around moaning about their wounded artistic purity, which they didn’t mind compromising by making commercials anonymously. Recently I read Winner’s autobiography and it wasn’t half bad. It was three-quarters bad, but only because of its many thousands of superfluous exclamation marks. Clear those out into a skip and the book would be a fascinating, if much shorter, story of diligence rewarded, told in a prose admirably forthcoming if not always edifying. One of the sub-stories in the book concerns Winner’s love—hate relationship with Burt Lancaster. You might wonder why it wasn’t hate—hate. Once, on location in Mexico, Lancaster had grasped Winner by the throat and hung him out over a high cliff. It’s either kind or craven for Winner to remember this behaviour as somehow an indication of Lancaster’s lovable volatility, because it sounds exactly like homicidal mania.

On location near Shepperton, things were more restrained, but still very weird. The unit was between set-ups when we arrived. Sitting intensely in a canvas-backed folding chair marked BURT LANCASTER, the star stuck a cigarette in his mouth and waited. He had to wait only a few seconds before Winner shouted, ‘A light for Mr Lancaster!’ A factotum bounded forward with a cigarette lighter already spouting flame. After the next shot, lunch was called. The smaller mess tent for the star and the director was in plain sight, about two hundred yards away. Lancaster stood up from his chair, but that was as far as he went by himself. He stared at Winner with a weary impatience. Winner took the cue and shouted, ‘A car for Mr Lancaster!’ A black Mercedes 600 longer than a school bus loomed across the grass and stopped precisely so that the action hero could step directly into it after the back door had been opened by the assistant director, the PR attaché, and other members of the door-opening party that I could not identify. The Mercedes set off on its epic journey across two hundred yards of grass, arriving at the sacred tent only a short time before the rest of us arrived on foot. Lancaster’s door remained firmly closed until it was opened by the chauffeur, the assistant director, the PR attaché, the other members of the door-opening party, and Winner himself. Winner congratulated Lancaster on his successful voyage in terms which would have embarrassed Lindbergh after his arrival in Paris. It was a graphic demonstration of the perennial need for the institution of monarchy: because there is a total, ineradicable potential for subservient ceremonial bullshit in the universe and it all has to go somewhere.

I would have been open-mouthed if Arthur had not conveyed to me in a whisper the vital necessity of keeping my trap shut. I already knew that Lancaster had not attained his position as one of Hollywood’s most powerfully creative figures by self-denial and humility. His company Hecht, Hill and Lancaster had changed the industry, making it possible, for the first time, for a star to be in full charge of his career. Lancaster had not only starred in more than his share of important movies, he had produced them, and often developed them from the initial idea. To do all that, he had to get some respect, and had frequently got it by imposing his personality with the full force of his improbably gleaming teeth, sometimes implanting them in the outstretched neck of a courtier he found insufficiently supplicatory. But this stuff on the Scorpio location went beyond self-assertion. This was megalomania. Lancaster wasn’t precisely carried into the tent, but its flaps were held aside by two men who had clearly learned their flap-holding skills at the court of Hailie Selassie, and the business of making sure that Mr Lancaster sat down safely would have been familiar to Louis XIV. As Lancaster, once a champion acrobat and still in superb physical shape, lowered himself from the standing to the sitting position, Winner, from the other side of the table, flung out one hand in a gesture of caution, as if the star might be putting his life in peril from the speed of transition and change of altitude. You could see the instruction hovering on the director’s lips: ‘A parachute for Mr Lancaster!’ From our position in one corner of the tent, I watched Mr Lancaster eat. Chesterton once said, on the subject of innate human dignity, that it all depended on the presence of the holy spirit, and that it was otherwise hard to take the human body seriously, belonging as it did to a creature that nourished itself by pushing food into a hole at the bottom of its face. But everybody at Lancaster’s table watched him eat as if their fate depended on the proper functioning of his digestive system. I was disappointed that there was nobody to taste his food first, in case of poison, but would not have been astounded to learn that his excrement was weighed afterwards, in the same way that the output of the Chinese emperors was examined for portents.

After lunch, the interview took place in another tent at the edge of the compound. Once again, Lancaster was transported by limousine. But in our preliminary conversation he seemed to like my references to his early career as a gymnast. Flying on the high bar, Lancaster had forged in a touring circus the magnificent athleticism that made him, on screen, so beautifully poised even when he was standing still. It is always a plus, when warming up a difficult subject, to get him or her talking about their formative skills. This gives them a chance to instruct you. I hadn’t yet formulated this as a principle: I had got it right merely by luck. It was flattery, of course, a version of ‘A light for Mr Lancaster!’ But it worked. He scaled down the hauteur considerably. Instead of being Louis XIV, suddenly he was merely Napoleon Bonaparte. By the time our cameras rolled he was practically mortal. From The Crimson Pirate onwards, I got a good story out of him about every movie that counted, and from each story he emerged as a model of reason, taste, and judgement. There was only one moment when he seemed insane. When I made the mistake of praising Alexander Mackendrick, director of The Sweet Smell of Success — by common consent the greatest film that Lancaster was ever in — the star said that Mackendrick had been so slow with the set-ups ‘we almost fired him’. By ‘we’, of course, he meant ‘I’, and my jaw, against strict instructions, dropped. But my moment of revulsion could be cut out of the finished interview, and forty years later, from a detailed biography of Lancaster, I found out that he had been telling the truth. Mackendrick’s slow shooting threatened to put the masterpiece a mile over its budget, thus threatening Lancaster’s finances. His film company was the biggest of the independents, but it was still betting the farm on every project. He really was a brave, intelligent, and original man, although I always thought him a ham actor until time forced him to commit less energy. But I left that unmentioned, and at the end of the interview he indicated his satisfaction in a way that had been lighting up the screen for decades. His teeth looked like tombstones anyway, and when he bared them in a smile it looked like a carnival in a graveyard. Film stardom has more to do with presence than with acting, and Lancaster had always had so much presence that everyone else felt absent. He still had it. Getting away from him as far as possible seemed the only thing to do. As Lancaster, once again surrounded by his entourage, prepared to enter the limo for the awe-inspiring journey to the tent next door, and I followed our crew towards our humble van, Arthur muttered, ‘Don’t say anything. He might be listening.’

The Lancaster interview looked good on screen, but it made me wonder if I was really cut out for soothing the frailties of these fabled beasts. The mild-looking ones could be as dangerous as the known killers. Riding a tiger was one thing, but stroking an antelope could cost you your eyesight if the creature rounded on you and stuck out its tongue. Already I was wondering if I wanted to go on much further with Cinema. Pete was about to go into studio with the first album of our songs, the Review and the TLS were hungry for copy, the Observer TV column was nominally a full-time job anyway, and there was always Louis MacNeice showing up in my troubled dreams like Banquo’s ghost. Did I really need the anxiety of talking to madhouse people with household names? The question was settled by my next big Cinema special, an interview with Peter Sellers.

Universally acclaimed as a comic genius, Sellers, after Dr. Strangelove and A Shot in the Dark, was still on a high plinth, but the cracks were starting to show. There were stories that he was driven by his own version of Tony Hancock’s fatal reluctance to admit that a comic star might be to a certain extent dependent on those who supplied the words he said. As I mentioned earlier, but always feel bound to mention again, when Hancock heard too often that the scripts provided for him by Galton and Simpson were essential to his screen persona, he met the threat by firing them. His final destruction duly followed. Sellers wasn’t as stupid as that, but he had already reached the dangerous state, for a comedian, of wanting to be cast as a romantic lead, as if he had more than comedy to offer. Successful comedy is already ‘more than’ almost anything else, but there will always be comedians who regard their reputation for getting laughs as a cruel diminishment of their real qualities. It had become known that Sellers was one of these. It had also been attested that his famous range of mimicry included no character that could reliably be identified as Peter Sellers himself. He bought a new car every week, changed women every few months — usually after giving a press conference to declare that the latest tie was eternal — and generally showed all the signs of someone short of an identity trying to supply it with a sufficiency of fancy toys, ranging from the latest automatic camera to Princess Margaret. All of these things I had read about but most of them I had discounted, on the assumption that he had attracted journalistic envy.

There could be no safer assumption than that, but within minutes of meeting him I realized that the press had been giving him an easy run. The encounter took place at some swish restaurant whose name I have repressed: it might have been Odin’s. Sellers and his latest agent were in position at the table before Arthur and I arrived. While Sellers was regaling Arthur with a superb imitation of John Gielgud, the agent leaned in my direction and said, ‘He’s a vegetarian this week.’ The implication was that the star didn’t want even to smell meat, so Arthur and I ended up eating a small pile of vegetables each while Sellers became Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Richard Burton, and Alec Guinness. In broad daylight, it was a jamboree of spectres. When a student, I had loved his Alec Guinness routine in ‘The Bridge on the River Wye’ sketch, and here it was again, the replica of a replica. He went on to become Field Marshal Montgomery, President Nixon, Bing Crosby, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Marlene Dietrich. The only dud in the range was when he was pretending to be himself. His beautifully produced standard BBC English had the unmistakable gleam of a freshly forged banknote. But it was what he was actually saying, in this voice purportedly his own, that rang the alarm bells. He launched into an account of how Blake Edwards, the director of A Shot in the Dark, had screwed up the billiard-room scene. As his agent studied the ceiling while looking down at his plate — the trick needs a practised pair of eyeballs — Sellers moved pieces of cutlery about to demonstrate that whereas on screen the sequence had gone like that, it should have gone like this. Edwards, apparently, had deviously seemed to agree with Sellers’ suggestions on the sound stage, but had double-crossed him in the cutting room. As the well-modulated tirade went on, Arthur and I exchanged the glance shared by two coal-miners when they hear water coming down the tunnel. Arthur told me later that this was the moment when he started thinking about the relative ease of dealing with Burt Lancaster. I was thinking of A Shot in the Dark. Sellers had come up with the perfect face, voice, and set of movements for Inspector Clouseau, but he was everywhere abetted by well-planned scenes that could only have been the work of the director, because they were the product of concentration, and Sellers was clearly incapable of concentrating on anything for five minutes, except, probably, on Sophia Loren in the passenger seat of his new Ferrari.

According to him, however, the movie was all his. Transparently untrue, this contention was a sign that he was already far gone in the fatal delusion that the people who helped him to succeed were conspiring to his downfall. The sure sign of a weak man who ascends to glory is that he can’t tolerate having strong men around him. But it would be a long time before I figured that out as a general principle. At that moment, I was too busy remembering the scene in which Clouseau hurls himself at the door of the upstairs concert room in the castle, hurtles across the room in long shot, and is then seen, in the exterior shot, bursting through the window and falling, still running, into the moat below. Out of those three shots, his stunt double could have done the second and almost certainly did the third. In The Pink Panther, also directed by Edwards, Clouseau, preparing for a rare night of passion with his wife, heads into the bathroom while holding a bottle of pills. Of course, being Clouseau, he will spill them. But when he does, we don’t even see him. We just hear the pills hit the tiled floor. The camera is looking at Capucine, who doubles the laugh by putting her hand over her eyes in resignation. Clouseau is present only as an idea. The joke emerges from the character, who has been created not just by the actor but by the writers and the director. How could Sellers be so ungenerous as not to concede that? He could even have been proud of it, because without his talent at the centre, none of all these other talents would ever have formed around him. The answer was not long in coming. He was ungenerous because he was unrealistic. When Charles Chaplin thought he could do everything, he could provide the evidence to back up the claim, although the evidence ran thinner when sound came in and it turned out that his touch with a story did not extend to its dialogue. But Sellers had always needed other people. The need, however, conflicted with his nature, which was that of a solipsist. To be a solipsist is to be deluded about the world, which would not be worth living in if it did not exist independently from the self.

I was wrong, however, to suppose that Sellers thought the world revolved around him. He thought the cosmos did too, and history, and the fates. After the endless lunch had ground to its conclusion, we headed off around the corner to the hotel in which our crew had taken over a room to rig the cameras and lights. The moment that Sellers saw which hotel it was, the really weird stuff started. He had drunk nothing during lunch except some special water that had to be brought in by courier from high in the Himalayas, where it had been strained through the loincloth of a swami. So he couldn’t have been drunk. But suddenly he was staggered. ‘Oh no,’ he said, in a version of the Sellers voice that sounded like his cockney accent in The Wrong Arm of the Law. I suspected that these might be his true tones, to the extent that they could be resurrected. Resurrected was the right word, because he looked like living death. ‘Oh no. No. Can’t go in there.’ While he stood staring paralysed at the hotel’s front door, his agent whispered to us fiercely: ‘Jesus, what made you pick this place? He can’t go through the door.’ It turned out that we had chanced on the very hotel where Sellers had begun his liaison with Britt Ekland. Their eternal alliance having ended with the usual bitter abruptness, bad karma had gathered around the doorway of the place where the universal catastrophe had begun under the guise of bliss. Evil spirits walked and groaned. Voodoo tom-toms, inaudible to us, pulsed. Negative feng shui enveloped the building. All of it, apparently, except the roof. When Arthur explained that there was no time left to hire another venue and reposition the camera, agent asked client if there was any way of getting into the building that would not offend its incorporeal guardians. Blinking as if called upon to assent to the sacrifice of his immortal soul, Sellers whispered that an indirect approach might be all right. ‘We could go in over the roof.’ It took ten minutes to navigate upwards through the building next door, Sellers giving autographs all the way, with the terrible smile of the condemned. You could imagine Christ ascending Golgotha, asking the autograph hounds to hold their books still so that he could sign one-handed while dragging the cross. The transition over the rooftop would have been quicker if Sellers had not been bailed up by a particularly hostile spiritual presence speaking Swedish. Sellers spent several minutes negotiating with thin air. Inside the hotel, certain corridors had to be avoided. Our small party was exhausted when it finally attained the room full of lights, cameras, and technicians.

The interview itself could have been worse. Sellers decided to impersonate a normal, even reasonable, human being. In a position, by now, to realize that this was the most remarkable acting feat of his life, I managed, while the magazines were being changed, to keep him occupied by proving myself familiar with the details of his more off-trail achievements, the ones we weren’t talking about on camera. I was further struck, however, by the way he was not in the least surprised to encounter someone in possession of all this knowledge. He thought everyone knew it. Like every egomaniac, he behaved as if everybody else spent their day being as interested in him as he was. Even at the time, I had enough sense to mark this down as a lesson for life. Self-regard would get out of hand, if it were given the power, so watch for the symptoms. Sanity would be hard to get back if it were ever let go of. At the end of his career, Sellers would show signs of wanting to get it back. After a long and progressively disastrous series of scripts chosen on the grounds that they presented him as an irresistible sexual object, he elected to star in Being There, a movie about a man minus a personality who rises to prominence because people can read their dreams into him. Perfect for the part, he was able to go out on a high note. His whole career might have been like that if he had always been so judicious. But it would have been a lot to ask. He had a conspicuous individual talent, but it was interpretive, not directly creative. He could never have emulated Chaplin, Keaton, or Jacques Tati and set up a whole project by himself, controlling its every detail even if the task took years. But there is no point carping. He had such a protean capacity that it would have been a miracle if he had been in full command of it. Those of us with less to offer earn no points for ordering our lives better. Wagner couldn’t compose unless he was living in Byzantine luxury, worshipped as a living god. You and I aren’t quite that nuts, but we didn’t write the Magic Fire music in the last pages of Die Walkure, either. When Sellers was far gone on the road to self-destruction, I tried to remember him as Dr Strangelove, strangling himself with one black-gloved hand. It was all too symbolic. But it was also his idea, a moment of brilliant improvisation. He just thought of something perfectly expressive on the spot, and hardly anybody can do that.

When the Sellers interview went to air it looked a lot more interesting than an exercise in hagiography. There was information and the occasional cause for amusement. And Sellers was undoubtedly a vivid illustration of the truth that the new, classless arts-media elite left the old social Establishment looking as tedious as a pair of green wellingtons caked with mud. An interview with the Governor of the Bank of England would probably have had less brio, unless he could do card tricks. But I was already making up my mind that my time on Cinema had run its course. After three series of thirteen regular weekly programmes, I had learned all I could about writing a clip show. When the time came for the tapes to be wiped — as, in those days, nearly all tapes were — one of them was preserved and given to the National Film Theatre, for the collection that was later to form the core of the Museum of the Moving Image. I chose the representative show myself: it was on the subject of the Hollywood Heavies, and I was quite proud of the bit about Lee Marvin. But anyone who saw it today would soon spot that I had a formula worked out. The prize for finding a formula is that you can pack more in. The penalty is that you will quickly exhaust the possibilities. The troubled but inexhaustibly inventive Kenny Everett, who really was a genius in a way that Peter Sellers was only talked about as being, was currently in the hilarious process of developing a television formula that could be elaborated for ever. Indeed other people are still elaborating it today. But for mere mortals, a television formula soon becomes a cocoon. (The great thing about a pre-industrial art form like poetry is that there is no formula to find: it’s a new start every time. Not even Dante exhausted the possibilities of the terza rima, and Shakespeare, had he wished to, could have gone on writing sonnets for ever.) The specials, had I gone on with them, might have led to a more expansive layout than the simple interview with written top and tail, but there was an inhibiting factor, looming already even in those early days of rule by PR: the studios, in control of access, also limited the tone. No new movie could be dismissed as worthless. Everything the star had done was important and nothing was a waste of time. These precepts might have been a guarantee of decent deference — which on the whole I really felt, because I respected public opinion too much to believe that anyone ever got famous for nothing — but they were undoubtedly restrictions on expression. In the TV column I was much more free to let rip.